Why conspiracy theories won't die

The belief in dark forces can exert a mesmeric hold.

Since the May release of his 1,612-page book, "Reclaiming History," criminal prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi has been telling the world that John F. Kennedy's death had nothing to do with a government conspiracy. By most accounts, he's made a pretty airtight case.

Mr. Bugliosi has spent 20 years examining just about every theory put forth about the assassination. "It's my view that it's impossible for any reasonable, rational person to read this book without being satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that [Lee Harvey] Oswald killed Kennedy and acted alone," Bugliosi told The New York Times in May.

Despite the sense that Bugliosi's is the final word, for some people the simple explanation remains less compelling than the labyrinthine alternatives. It was notable that last week, the print edition of The New York Times published a two-page ad, an "open letter" from one Paul Kuntzler, declaring that "President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered by vice president London [sic] Baines Johnson in a widespread, incredibly complex and brilliantly planned conspiracy...." The letter went on to implicate Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Arlen Specter, the US military, Ford Motor Co., Life magazine, and something Mr. Kuntzler called "big Oil of Midland, Texas," among many others.

Who is Kuntzler? Since he included his telephone number at the bottom of his letter, I called him to find out. He became interested in the JFK assassination in 1991 after reading Jim Marrs's book, "Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy." He spent $186,000 on the New York Times ad. Altogether, Kuntzler estimates he's spent a quarter of a million dollars on what he calls "the last opportunity for the American public to have confirmation on what happened Nov. 22, 1963." "I don't have much money left," he added.

After I talked to Kuntzler, I called Bugliosi. We spent some time talking about why, despite the conventional wisdom that the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation, the human mind seems so naturally drawn to the complexities and innuendoes of conspiracy theories. Bugliosi admitted that they are usually more interesting than the truth. In the case of Kennedy, he said, they point to a kind of collective inability to accept that such a monumental, historical event could be caused by a single, ordinary person.

"It gives more meaning to his life and death," Bugliosi said, "to believe dark forces are responsible for his death."

That makes sense. But speaking of simple explanations, what about the fact that every once in a while a conspiracy theory comes along that has some truth to it? Take, for example, this particular moment in this particular nation. You don't have to believe in fake moon landings or even stolen elections to sense that we're experiencing one of the most secretive periods in recent political history. When it comes to the current state of things, smelling a rat isn't necessarily contingent on living in your mother's basement and wearing T-shirts that say things like "Inside Job!" It's simply a matter of paying attention.

Then again, there's such a thing as paying too much attention. "If you're a parent and your child gets interested in the JFK case, it's toxic," Bugliosi told me. "It's caused divorces, bankruptcies, and suicides."

Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist. ©2007 Los Angeles Times.

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